Friday, 28 March 2014

Alison XVI – Vikki

I knew Vikki as soon as I saw her. Actually I recognised the nipples first – much too big and pink for her little up-turned boobs.
I’d just got back from a trip away with Andrea, to Morocco in fact. It was the first session of the new academic year but to be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood. I like to make out that my time with Andrea was just good dirty fun – commitment free, easy-going, no regrets sex, usually in exotic or exciting locations, and she usually paid for the accommodation too. But in truth, much as I wanted her, I had real trouble with the arrangement and always came away somehow a bit more fractured each time. In retrospect, I think she knew this and that’s why eventually, mercifully, she let me go, or, at least, her communications got further and further apart and eventually ceased altogether. Anyway, that particular autumn I remember the streets of Brighton seemed especially dismal, compared to where we’d been for the last three weeks and I was feeling very sorry for myself. Plus I was into my thirties by then and frankly a bit bored with my life and the idea of just chucking it all up and buggering off somewhere hot for a few years really appealed to me. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it even now. Nothing was stopping me.

Anyway, the first session of the life-drawing classes, there was Vikki, taking her gown off and walking, naked, to the couch in the centre and looking incredibly familiar. I remember her smiling slightly apologetically, slightly challengingly at me and sitting down there, leant forward with her elbows on her thighs, hands together as if in prayer. It took me a moment to realise she was waiting for me to start. The students were standing around, trying to look as if being in a room with a bunch of strangers and a naked woman is the most natural thing in the world – we’re all adults after all and we’ve all seen it before and so forth. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t believe it. Naked human bodies are compulsive viewing. You can’t not look, and don’t tell me it’s of purely aesthetic interest. Why do we life-draw otherwise? We could just as easily have chair drawing courses, or dog drawing classes? It’d be cheaper.
So we all check her out, more-or-less surreptitiously. Actually this is unusual. Normally the model keeps her gown on until we are ready to start and just takes it off at the last moment. It is unusual for them to take it off straight away and just sit there through my introductory remarks (fire exits, toilets, complaints policy) completely exposed like that. Doesn’t she realise it might be another quarter of an hour before we actually draw her? I feel I should say something. I ask her if she’s warm enough and she smiles that slightly sorry smile again and says she’s fine. Her nipples stand proud and erect nevertheless. I wonder for a moment if I’ll need to provide extra charcoal and almost get the giggles.

I introduce myself to the students who have arrived and try to make the stragglers as welcome as possible. There’s always a few, every week. I’m not good on discipline. I run through the formalities as quickly as possible for Vikki’s sake and move on more quickly than usual to discussing what life drawing is all about so that she needn’t sit awkwardly any longer than necessary. I realise now that it was my awkwardness I was dealing with, not hers. She was perfectly happy as she was. I asked her to lean back on her elbows. I took in her long slender body and limbs. There was almost no line to any part of her – no muscle definition, no prominent bone structure, skin neither pale nor tanned. I looked about her for something to draw attention to besides the nipples. I tried to look like I was thinking hard but I wasn’t. My mind was blank. Then I realised she was looking at me through her fringe, those bright, challenging grey eyes again, waiting for me to say something. I decided to cop out and ask the class what they thought, trying to imply all the while that I had the definitive opinion ready. Actually I was hoping they’d give me something to go on.
I should say at this point that I’d been used to dealing with bodies that were a good deal more characterful – skinny or overweight, muscular or puny, ancient or nubile and although these descriptions never come near to encapsulating the person, they provide a place to hang a discussion, or at least an opinion, and of course, ultimately to discard, because life drawing is what chair drawing is not because we are not just dealing with the form, we are dealing with the person, the character, the life. I like to tell my students that that’s why it’s called life drawing. I’ve heard a lot of artists claim the opposite – that it’s just a shape like any other, a configuration of light and dark, of bulk and void, vociferously but never persuasively. I think it’s just the old puritanical work ethic again and I’m not fooled for a moment.

Vikki was a problem because I had absolutely nothing to say about her. She was attractive, certainly, in a vague, insubstantial way. My first thought was Burne-Jones actually, one of those glaucous drowned bodies of his but she was much too tangible for that. There was nothing symbolist about her. She watched me intently the whole time, waiting for something. I was sure I knew her from somewhere. I even called her Miranda at one point, for reasons that escape me. Maybe she reminded me of someone I’d known in a previous life.
We drew her for fifteen minutes, me included, which was unusual. I didn’t usually join in but I needed to see how she worked. In any case I find it’s best to let the class produce their first efforts without too much input, just to give us something very raw to start with. First attempts by beginners are usually pretty dire but would not be helped by my interference. I’ll interfere later and for the next thirty weeks if they’ll let me.
After fifteen minutes I stop everyone and say to Vikki that she can get up and relax for a while, while we discuss what we’ve come up with. Usually the model puts their gown on and retreats somewhere discrete. Not Vikki. She wandered around the room completely starkers, looking at the work on the walls and then, finding a book, perched herself on a stool with it on her lap and looked at the pictures, her breasts just touching the pages. It was very distracting. It occurred to me that she might not be entirely well, mentally that is. At break I picked up her gown and all but made her put it on. She seemed surprised but let me help her on with it anyway. I asked her if she wanted a coffee or something. The coffee from the machine tasted like mop buckets, and actually looked like it too so I always brought a flask and I offered her a cup. I didn’t usually do that either. Next I said ‘I know you, don’t I?’ and she smiled a little and blinked. ‘Do you?’ she said.
I didn’t know what to say next and I ended up prattling about the college and how well they treat their staff and what she was getting paid. I mentioned I’d done quite a bit of life modelling myself when I was a student and so I knew how difficult it was, the aching joints and the numb toes and so on. She smiled and nodded and sipped my coffee but I didn’t get anything much out of her otherwise. I decided to leave her to it. I don’t usually talk to the models anyway. It’s not snobbery, not with me anyway. It’s just a bit awkward somehow.

For the second part of the session I got her to do some quick standing poses and then a longer crouching position and then we were done. I didn’t expect to see her for a while because we rarely used the same model two weeks running and I found myself asking her if she fancied going for a drink afterwards. I’d never attempted to make a date with my model before and I expected her to be disgusted and report me to the principal or something. I was sure there must be something in the handbook about relationships between fully clothed tutors and naked models and I blathered my apologies to her in advance in an attempt to cover myself, should she attempt to sue me for sexual harassment or something. Of course I was forgetting that she was a mature and professional woman, just doing her job, which happened to involve taking her clothes off in public and that any awkwardness was entirely mine.
Much later on I discovered that she wasn’t being mature and professional at all. She was being naive and vulnerable, but that's how she was.

‘She was an interesting girl, our Vikki. I still don’t really know what she was about.’
‘Girl?’ says Alison dubiously ‘How old was she, remind me?’
‘I know, I know’ I say. I am aware it sounds patronising or patriarchal or something but the word fits. ‘A couple of years older than me actually, and a bit taller too. Anyway, that first evening she came to the pub with me after the session and I was looking across at her, across the table, trying to make conversation, and my mind was wandering back to Andrea, who I’d only said goodbye to forty-eight hours previously and just thinking how much more we’d have had to say to each other. There would never have been this small talk. Actually, it wasn’t that Vikki and I didn’t have anything to say. It was just so... faltering. I felt we were continuously at cross-purposes somehow. And then I looked at her face and realised I didn’t even think she was particularly attractive. But we stayed until closing time and I walked her home and said goodbye politely at her door and nothing happened. It was weird...’
‘Maybe you were just lonely.’
‘I don’t think so. To be honest it was all I could do to go to work that evening. I really needed some time to myself. I hadn’t intended to stay with Andrea as long as I had. I’d postponed my flight twice. I knew I should be home, preparing for lessons but I just kept putting it off. I really wasn’t looking for company.’
‘So what was it, the past life connection?’
‘Maybe, but I don’t think that was very strong. I knew I knew her from somewhere but I thought it was maybe from around college or around town. Brighton’s a small place. If you’d seen her in the street you’d have thought she was just another one of those slightly batty Brighton birds who can’t decide if they’re a flapper or a hippy or your auntie Maude – all silly hats and inappropriate cardigans with huge brooches on, and mad impractical shoulder bags, you know the type.’
She smiles and nods.
‘I don’t know. She was so not my type.’
‘But I phoned her up next day – made another date. I don’t know. I just said to myself – what the heck. Anyway, she turns up at the cinema in this enormous green fake fur coat and a little pink felt hat and little green shoes. It was kind of excruciating being seen out with her sometimes. I was quite vain I suppose.’
‘But you did fall in love with her.’
‘Well, she grew on me.’
‘What did she do? for a living I mean, apart from the modelling, obviously.’
‘She had various projects on the go – she had her own artwork she was doing – papier-mâché crockery believe it or not, and some “healing skills” she was trying to pick up, plus she worked in a whole food shop. Typical Brightonian. Her friends were all the same. She had a lot of friends...’ I sit and think for a while, remembering, smiling. ‘She was always coming up with these business ideas – working out ways to make money, get herself a place to live, or a trip to India or whatever she needed. She was actually very sharp and much more enterprising than me, which was interesting because I’d always been brought up to expect the worst. I felt, all my life, like I had to constantly struggle to keep things going, even just at a simple level. Andrea on the other hand, she just had this focus. She knew exactly what she was doing and she just did it. She wasn’t nasty about it but there really wasn’t any point in getting in her way. I see that now. Vikki was different again.’
‘Different how?’
‘I’ve thought about this but I’m still not sure. I think she knew it was all chaos and that it might all fall apart at any moment, but she just lived like that. She just surfed it. I’ve never known anyone so vulnerable and sensitive and yet so brave and resourceful, and good-natured about it too. She was actually really funny, really mad and scatty. I couldn’t keep up a lot of the time. She loved dressing up and having parties and dancing madly and I’m sorry to say I was a little boring about it at first.’ ‘I can imagine.’
‘Thanks. But actually it sort of worked. I felt bad about it at the time because I really wanted to be more like her – less inhibited, less self-conscious, but actually I think she liked me being a bit stern, a bit unreachable. I think she liked it that I was a bit authoritarian with her. You’ve got to remember, I wasn’t used to being the stable, organised one in any relationship. It was quite empowering actually. But there was a lot of drama.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh she could be absolutely infuriating. We used to have these big tearful bust-ups on the phone. I still can’t remember what they were about. She was insecure I suppose.’
‘Did you tell her about Andrea?’
‘Sort of. She knew we’d been seeing each other before and I told her we were just friends now, and to be honest that was true. I’d told Andrea about Vikki but Andrea never really expected anyone to be monogamous I don’t think. Anyway, it really upset Vikki for a while.’
‘Not surprisingly...’
‘No but, and I’m not making excuses, I think in a way it actually made us stronger.’
Alison looks even more sceptical than usual. To be honest I don’t really believe it myself. And yet I do. It’s easy to write myself off as just another cheating bastard, as pretty much anyone else would, but in another way I think Vikki quite liked the idea that there was this mysterious ‘Other Woman’ somewhere in my life that she’d never met. Whenever she came up in conversation or just the subject of affairs or infidelity was in the news Vikki would go into this hugely theatrical sulk and refuse to talk to me. She’d go out into town on her own to make me jealous and then come in late and refuse to tell me where she’d been. And then she’d quite suddenly be in tears and apologising and telling me what a bad girl she was...’
‘Sounds kinky...’
‘Yes. It was’ is all I can say to that. Sometimes I think I took advantage maybe, letting things get out of hand, watching her get more and more out of control, incredulous at the stupid things she came out with.
‘I really wanted to make it work out. Really I did. I didn’t see Andrea at all for years after we got together.’
‘But Andrea was still in your mind.’
‘Maybe, when things were bad. But then, I knew it wasn’t realistic with her.’
‘But at some level, didn’t Vikki know you were just making do with her? She must have known. So the drama heightened the sexual energy I’m sure but...’
‘It did. I’ve never known anything like it. I think maybe up until then I’d been a bit too much the “new man” – a bit too patient and considerate. She taught me a lot...’
Alison looks at me intently but I’m not going to elaborate. The truth of the matter is that I often found the roles we assumed a little disturbing or contrived but it was always her demanding more from me.
‘I never abused her if that’s what you’re thinking’ I say. ‘She just liked the power, or lack of it, I think.’
And not just in bed. True there were those layers of ill-assorted leggings and skirts and waist-coats and scarves to get through, but underneath it all there were always the tiniest, frilliest, silkiest bits of underwear you could imagine, more like jewellery really than clothes.
‘I’m making it sound terrible’ I say, apologetically. Alison does not indulge me with reassurance or criticism. ‘She brought something out in me’ I say. ‘I wasn’t sure I liked it to be honest. I maybe felt, if I wanted to I could do anything to her and she’d still come back.’
‘And you did see other women.’
I say nothing.
Alison nods but says nothing.

‘I don’t know.’
‘You said you loved her.’
‘I know...’ And I really think I did. Maybe just not the way she wanted.
Alison looks at me - waiting for me to confess. My mind writhes. Why was I like that? I think of Lisa. I'm doing it again.
'I don't think I took her very seriously.'
'You think?' says Alison.
'I just... I suppose... It just didn't seem like it could matter that much, to her I mean.'
Now she looks genuinely quizzical and I know how she feels. I've never really thought about this before.
'She was always highly strung – starting fights, making a fuss about silly things.'
'In your opinion.'
'No in hers too. She always apologised afterwards. She always went out of her way to make it up to me.'
'But it didn't make any difference. You still fucked around.'
'Well not that much. It's not like I was out picking up women all the time. I wouldn't have known how.'
'So it just happened?'
'I know it sounds ridiculous.'
'No no, I get it. You were working with young people - impressionable, provocative, over-confident. How could you resist?'
'I don't think it was quite like that...'
'And you can bet she knew it too. It's flattering for a man - a man in his thirties - all these young girls...'
She's right. She's right about all of it. And yet I feel - what? Justified? Yes it was bad. Yes I betrayed her, but, I didn’t seem to be able to stop myself. I couldn’t. I just had to. Because... I don’t know.
'...wanting your attention - wanting to know your opinion, get your approval. That’s a lot of power.'
'No it wasn't like that.'
'How was it then?'
'I don't know. I think it was the other way round.'
'It was me wanting their approval. I know it sounds stupid.'
'Not at all.'
'I couldn't turn it down. I had to go for it because...'
'...because you might never be another chance.'
I’m silenced. There was this fear, she’s right, that if I didn’t take this opportunity...
'But what about Vikki. Didn’t she count?'
'That was different' I say lamely.
'You didn't take her seriously. She was even needier than you were so you couldn't respect her.'
There's a long pause in which I'm close to tears. I look at the carpet. The sun is bright outside. People are laughing. It's not funny.
'I didn't break up with her because I didn't want to make her cry. Isn't that ridiculous.'
'So you would have broken up with her sooner.'
'Maybe. People crying always gets me. I just can't... I don't know.'
'So you stayed with her out of, what, pity?'
'And I was afraid I'd end up alone too I guess.'
'But what about all those other girls? How many are we talking about by the way?'
'Well that's just it. None of them lasted. I think when they found out what I was really like they sort of lost interest. There was six or seven of them I think. I don't remember.'
Alison seems disappointed. 'I expect they just wanted a quick fling. Is that not what you wanted?'
'I expect I took it all too seriously. I was never any good at one night stands.'
'Modern girls...'
'But you felt you had to try, just in case.'
'I suppose so.'
We take a moment to breathe and sip water. I grab a handful of tissues and blow my nose. I'm aware of how I must look.
‘Don't get me wrong' I say, 'I don’t know if it was just because of her, or my age or what, but I was feeling pretty good about myself at that time. I’d just got a promotion and I’d sold a few big pieces recently. I mean the money still wasn’t great but I just remember feeling really, I don’t know, capable, all of a sudden, like I was really getting on now. I felt like I was becoming a proper adult. Of course I know now that I’d never had a proper job or a steady income in any of my previous lives. You can’t imagine how that felt, suddenly, to be able to do things normal people do – buy myself a new bed or a posh new pair of shoes or decide to spend a couple of weeks in Greece if I felt like it, without having to rough it. I guess it gave me more confidence. And I suddenly realised women were interested in me.’
It wasn’t until I was in my mid thirties I realised that that flustered, uneasy look that women sometimes gave me didn’t mean “get away from me you freak.” I finally realised they might be off balance for a totally different reason. It was an extraordinary revelation.
'I found I could smile and go up to a woman and say something and chat for a while and maybe even flirt a bit. I suppose a lot of people take it for granted, a lot of men, but I just couldn’t believe it. It was intoxicating.’
Alison looks dubious. She really doesn't seem to get it, and I only worked it out relatively late. I think she sees me as this over-sexed egotistical male using and discarding women hither and thither, leaving a trail of destruction, but I was never cynically or even thoughtlessly going about using people. There was something frantic to it - something desperate.
Now I realise I was not all a bad looking bloke and I genuinely liked women and was interested in what they had to say and I didn't realise at the time how attractive that made me. It was only much later that I realised that I could probably have had a lot more than those 'six or seven'. (There were seven - I do know the exact number.) At the time though, it didn't feel that way. The reason I missed a lot of those opportunities was that I couldn't really believe, deep down, that they could possibly feel that strongly about me. It had to be a mistake and I was about to make a twat of myself - again. Even with the fabulous Andrea and the alluring Yve in my history I didn't really believe it. If anyone had asked me about them I don't know what I'd have said - that they were just flukes probably. I didn’t really believe that any of them could genuinely care about me, or be upset by the thought of me not being there. I just couldn’t see myself as being so important to anyone that I could cause that amount of pain. I could be hurt, and I was, often, but me able to hurt them? It seemed presumptuous to say the least.
I sit down and think some more. Alison still says nothing - just waits for me.

‘I did really want Vikki’ I say finally, lamely. I can't bring myself to use the L word any more. ‘There was something about her. I think it took a while for me to get it. But it was good, not just the sex. She was amazing. You have to believe that.’
‘But ultimately she just wasn’t enough.’
‘No’ I say flatly, going back to my pose of penitence, sitting forward, head down. ‘I wish we'd had more to talk about... I think maybe at the time nothing would have been enough. I think maybe I was like one of those blokes you hear about who’s grown up in poverty but they get rich, become a millionaire, but they have to keep making more and more money because there’s never going to be enough. There’s always this fear that it could all be gone tomorrow.’
‘Do you really believe that?’ she says dispassionately. I don’t know what she’s getting at. I thought I did. I’d meant it when I said it.
‘I’m not saying it was the right way to behave’ I say, wretchedly. ‘I’m just saying...’
‘And she wanted children?’
‘Would she have married you do you think?’
‘I think so.’
'She loved you.'
I sit in silence. I know it sounds stupid but I really don’t quite know what she means.
‘She really loved you. That’s how people behave when they are in love.’
I’m speechless. It still doesn’t make sense.
‘That never occurred to you?’
I slowly shake my head. It really never had. That anyone could feel that way about... me? Oh God.
‘I’ll leave you to think about that.’

She touches my shoulder and leaves. Time for me to go up on deck and get some air.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.